Global Challenges
Issue no. 7 | April 2020
Global Governance in Peril?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 7 | April 2020
Global Governance in Peril? | Article 6

Global Internet Governance: Is Fragmentation Avoidable?

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For the digital society, is multilateralism part of the solution or part of the problem? This article depicts how modes of governing the Internet are increasingly fragmented along enduring power imbalances. Multilateralism will not be part of the solution without undergoing an in-depth reform.

“Technology is accelerating, and we, the multilateral system of the digital age, are unprepared and need to catch up […] The systems for governance of digital technology are old, fragmented and reactive. The longer we wait to update these systems, the further we will fall behind.”

These remarks of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres from 10 June 2019 echo a ubiquitous concern among scholars and policymakers alike: for the digital society, is multilateralism part of the solution or part of the problem? As the UN prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary, its role in steering global actions in technology governance is increasingly questioned. The low level of trust in international institutions has turned attention to the power of technology itself to solve societal problems, whether by means of virtual currencies or artificial intelligence (AI) systems, powered by deep learning, neural networks and big data. The central and most contested issue in current debates is the role of the state, as a driver of digital policies or as part of broader intergovernmental coalitions designing and implementing (new) rules.


Who runs the Internet? a
ICANN, https://www.icann.org/resources/files/governance-2013-02-06-en

The stakes for the Internet, now counting over 4 billion users worldwide, have grown exponentially. As a privately operated network of networks, it has enabled trillions of applications across all sectors, for purposes as diverse as educational advancement, commercial transactions and military probing. Changes in the Internet’s infrastructure and underlying technology have, however, recently contributed to strengthening sovereignist agendas at the expense of international cooperation. The ideal of an open, free and secure global Internet is jeopardised by technical developments, new business models and advanced surveillance, and weaponisation tools. This trend is increasingly mirrored in the governance of AI, with powerful states such as the United States, China and Russia more prone to carve out a decisive competitive advantage than to working together.

The tension between intergovernmental and private modes of governance, on the one hand, and more innovative multistakeholder processes, on the other hand, remains at the heart of the governance of existing and emerging technology. The unprecedented growth of tech companies, increasingly under public scrutiny, has undoubtedly changed the outlook. Online services operating across multiple jurisdictions pose challenges to traditional regulation. The high concentration of power in the hands of a few American and Chinese companies has made the decentralised Internet a dream of the past. The high concentration of power in the hands of a few American and Chinese companies has made the decentralised Internet a dream of the past, while data-driven business models have shown that once information is harvested, there is no limit to its repurposing, manipulation and misuse. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a case in point, widely perceived as a direct threat to electoral systems and democratic processes. More recently, the move towards a sovereigntist agenda also surfaced in the national AI strategies of about a dozen countries. While the overall involvement of civil society in global policymaking has expanded, it has been primarily in global forums with “no teeth” (non-binding outcomes), such as the UN-led Internet Governance Forum.


In parallel, during the last decade, stronger national approaches to limiting access to the global Internet have emerged, in the form of comprehensive constraints (China, Russia or Iran) and network shutdowns targeting specific events (across Africa, Asia and South America). Around the globe, digital censorship is on the rise. Mandated by states and implemented by private intermediaries, content controls reveal new ways of policing the cyberspace through automation and machine-learning tools, consolidating the position of a handful of tech giants. As a result, private agreements, informal venues and “clubs” (such as G7 or G20) have constituted the preferred venues to discuss global Internet governance, taking precedence over more global, inclusive initiatives (such as the Council of Europe) with higher levels of accountability.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visits the office of Mail.Ru Group, one of Russia’s biggest Internet companies, in Moscow, Russia, on 29 March 2019.

Alternative routes for timely decision-making are constantly sought, whether in the form of standardisation or circumvention strategies. To render the Internet less insecure, the technical community has developed the HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), allowing the authentication, encryption and protection of integrity of data exchange and transit. This protocol, introduced in 2016 and rapidly integrated in various browsers, provides technical solutions to specific vulnerabilities but does not put an end to the discussions on cybersecurity and mass surveillance. The establishment of plurilateral agreements after the failure – amidst fears of revenue loss from digitalisation – of global negotiations on new rules for e-commerce in 2017 provides another example of a successful circumvention strategy in the field of Internet governance.


Under these circumstances, can global cooperation make a difference? Multilateral governance for establishing cross-border regulation goes back to 1865, when the predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union, the International Telegraph Union, was established in order to build legitimacy for international rules and to create common standards. States have since come together in a plurality of forums, seeking ways to harmonise their approaches to Internet-related public policy. Despite a few notable successes at the regional level – such as the European Union’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation –, intergovernmental negotiations have often failed to deliver the expected results. Looking at the discussions of the 5th UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security, in which 25 UN member states participated, progress has been stalled in 2017 when no agreement could be reached on how international law – in particular the principles of self-defense, neutrality and proportionality – applies to cyberspace. In the ashes of this UN GGE, two new processes towards enhancing security in cyberspace were initiated in 2019: another limited-membership UN GGE entitled “Advancing responsible State behaviour in cyberspace in the context of international security” and an Open-Ended Working Group to which all UN member-states and other stakeholders can contribute. Paradoxically, the “age of digital interdependence” is marked by a high level of distrust in international politics. The latter is, at least in part, a response to a greater demand for transparent and inclusive discussions in a traditionally opaque, national-interest arena. It is also an indication that reform is needed in multilateral initiatives requiring broader participation, in particular from the Global South, such as the ongoing negotiations of another UN GGE on the regulation of lethal autonomous weapon systems.


Paradoxically, the “age of digital interdependence” – to use the phrase coined by the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation – is marked by a high level of distrust in international politics. Against the grim background of trade wars and growing political instability, the governance of technology as a global common is a test case for the resilience of our global system. Cross-border rules and standards for data protection, privacy, security, surveillance and digital flows are slowly emerging as a result of state-led processes, but the global arena remains highly fragmented along enduring power imbalances between developed and developing countries. Despite the multitude of actors able to participate in global debates, the dominant position of a few influential states and a handful of private tech giants has not been altered. For the future governance of AI to be any different, a reform that puts the public interest at the heart of cohesive action is urgent.

The UN has a key role to play in this reform by strengthening multilateralism and bridging policy silos. Innovative forums such as the Internet Governance Forum have prepared the ground for multistakeholder negotiations that can now be taken forward to establish binding rules and action plans. Fragmentation is highly detrimental to digital policy and neither states, nor civil society can be left out.

By Roxana Radu
Research Associate at the Global Governance Centre
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Points represent headquarters cities.
Key dates
1960 1995 2020

Map based on the data from The Correlates of War Project, “Intergovernmental Organizations (v3)” (for FIGOs) and from Olivier Westerwinter, “Transnational Public-Private Governance Initiatives in World Politics: Introducing a New Dataset” and its electronic supplementary material, in The Review of International Organizations, 2019 (for TGIs).
The data was enriched by the Graduate Institute's Research Office in Geneva, in collaboration with whybe.ch.

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© The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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© The Graduate Institute, Geneva

VIDEO | Stephanie Hofmann and Erna Burai on the evolution of multilateralism

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GRAPH | Overall compliance of G20 member states with 130 summit commitments from 2008 to 2013

BOX | 633 transnational governance initiatives (TGIs) classified by issue area

Environment, Agriculture, Food
  • Environment: 243 TGIs, 38,4%
  • Climate change: 145 TGIs, 22,9%
  • Food and agriculture: 115 TGIs, 18,2%
  • Energy: 106 TGIs, 16,7%
Finance, development
  • Development: 236 TGIs, 37,3%
  • Bank and finance: 25 TGIs, 3,9%
  • Regional development: 9 TGIs, 1,4%
  • Monetary policy: 1 TGI, 0,2%
Health, society, science, education, culture
  • Health: 163 TGIs, 25,8%
  • Society: 132 TGIs, 20,9%
  • Women: 63 TGIs, 10%
  • Science and technology: 60 TGIs, 9,5%
  • Technical: 44 TGIs, 0.07%
  • Labour: 38 TGIs, 6%
  • Education: 34 TGIs, 5,4%
  • Culture: 19 TGIs, 3%
Trade, exchange
  • Commerce: 90 TGIs, 14,2%
  • Trade: 45 TGIs, 7,1%
  • Transport: 35 TGIs, 5,5%
  • Tourism: 19 TGIs, 3%
Human rights and migration
  • Human rights: 74 TGIs, 11,7%
  • Migration: 6 TGIs, 0,9%
Peace and Security
  • Crime: 19 TGIs, 3%
  • Peace and stability: 15 TGIs, 2,4%
  • Soft security: 10 TGIs, 1,6%
  • Conflict: 8 TGIs, 1,3%
  • Defence: 6 TGIs, 0,9%
  • Private security: 3 TGIs, 0,5%
  • Nuclear proliferation: 3 TGIs, 0,5%
  • Counterterrorism: 1 TGI, 0,2%
  • Communication: 28 TGIs, 4,4%
  • Transparency: 25 TGIs, 3,9%
  • Legal: 22 TGIs, 3,5%

Source: Olivier Westerwinter, “Online Appendix for ‛Transnational Public-Private Governance Initiatives in World Politics: Introducing a New Dataset’”, 30 July 2019, available on https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-019-09366-w.

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